Why is research important?
- Research adds authenticity:
- Details are important: Maybe not all of your readers will notice, but someone, somewhere will, and they may be ruthless!
- To avoid making embarrassing mistakes
- Research can lead to new ideas, or help your story take flight in an unexpected direction.
- Research is fun!
When is research important?
Research is extremely important in historic novels, as you do not want to incorporate anachronisms, and if your contemporary novel is set in a real-world location, then you should familiarise yourself with its general layout and major landmarks.
It is especially important to undertake research if you are writing about cultures (ie: ethnicity, religion, social economic, etc) that you are unfamiliar with, for if you make a mistake, it could highly offend someone – and in this day of social media, readers can be ruthless.
In fantasy and (some) science fiction, you have an element of flexibility*, and readers are generally happy to suspend their disbelief a certain amount, but the most convincing stories are those in which the fiction is grounded, at least somewhat, in fact. For example, a common error in fantasy novels, is to use horses like all-purpose vehicles. In science fiction, especially hard science fiction, a solid grounding in science is required.
In dystopic or post-apocalyptic novels, adding in the remains of well-known landmarks can really add extra impact (ie: the original “Planet of the Apes”)
(* but your setting still needs to follow, and remain consistent to, a set structure of rules.)
How much research should I do?
Research can be a slippery slope. The more you learn, the more interesting it can become and you must figure out how much of it to keep. Libbie Hawker (author of “Take Off Your Pants!”) recommends writing first, then researching to fill in the gaps. This means that you will only be researching that which is relevant to the plot. But what if your topic is so fascinating that you just can’t stop researching it? And you just want to learn more? Well, that’s fine too, however…
How much of what I discover should I include in my story?
The iceberg theory applies here too. The answer is: as much as is necessary to the plot and the characters. No more. Sure, you may have learned a plethora of fascinating facts, but if they’re not advancing or enhancing the story, then you shouldn’t share them with your readers. Sorry. If it’s that fascinating, then add an appendix!
Anything additional that you learn will remain in your subconscious, and may reveal itself later, in another story or idea. So nothing learned is truly wasted.
There is also the risk that you may become so hung-up in your research that it becomes a form of procrastination – there can be a fine line between too much and not enough.
How do I go about researching my novel?
- Google and Wikipedia are really good for quick authenticity checks and basic details. However, be aware that not everything you read on the internet is true!
- Google Earth is a great resource for those who set their stories in real world places that they’ve never visited. Need to plot a car chase through Copenhagen? Well, street view will help.
- Visit the location: Road trip time! Take photographs and notes. Observe using all five senses, what scents do you notice? What sounds do you hear? All such details add to the authenticity of your settings. Just remember not to overdo it!
- Talk to people: your friends, family – people are generally happy to share their knowledge. This is also useful if you want to find out how it feels to, say, have a dislocated shoulder, if you’ve never done it yourself, you probably know someone who has. If you don’t know anyone personally, you can take it to Facebook or various discussion forums (such as the NaNoWriMo Reference Desk).
- Be Aware: if you are researching a controversial or opinion-based topic, speaking to just one expert can lead to bias. Seek to research as broadly as possible, then use what you learn to determine how your character thinks/behaves.
- the library: still relevant.
- YouTube: planning a fight scene but you’ve never wielded a sword in your life? Well, you can probably find footage of someone who has.
- Experts: Historians, scientists, educators, cultural leaders, police detectives, the Citizens Advice Bureau. Organise an interview, and write out a list of questions. As above, seeking from multiple sources can reduce bias.
- Personal Experience: Your character needs to ride a horse? Well, ride a horse! Volunteer your services. Take pottery classes. Try archery. Join the SCA… Not only can physically experiencing the activity yourself truly enhance the story, it could also lead to a new hobby or passion.
Research is important to maintain the authenticity of your tale and keep the reader engaged.